Oh My Darwin! (Back to May/December)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Tue Nov 30 02:00:35 MST 1999

*****   James Schwartz, "Oh My Darwin! -- Who's the Fittest Evolutionary
Thinker of Them All?" _Lingua Franca_ Volume 9, NO. 8 November 1999,

...The argument between evolutionary psychologists and their critics
centers on elemental mysteries of human nature. It is about the sort of
tough questions that kids ask--Why are some people bad? Why do some breeds
of dogs kill squirrels, and can they be taught not to?--as well as some
more adult concerns: Are older men genetically programmed to abandon their
longtime wives and take up with younger women? To what extent is
intelligence, sexual preference, or the capacity to nurture mapped out in
our genes? How deeply entrenched is the hatred and distrust of warring
ethnic groups throughout the world?...

...Yet by the early 1990s, gene-based explanations for human behavior were
on the rise. The stage was set for the reemergence of sociobiology under
the new name of evolutionary psychology. In 1992, the husband-wife
psychologist-anthropologist team of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby laid down
the manifesto for the new discipline of EP in their introduction to an
edited volume of original papers titled The Adapted Mind. EP was
essentially an extension of Wilson's program applied exclusively to humans,
with a few amendments to quell the leftist critique. Proponents of EP are
quick to emphasize that human nature was crafted by natural selection to
solve the problems of life on the African savanna 1.8 million years ago and
that traits that may have been advantageous then, like xenophobia and
aggression, may not confer a selective advantage in the modern world.
Hoping to avoid the criticisms that were leveled against the first
sociobiologists, the new generation insists it is most interested in
understanding the evolution of universal features of the human species, not
in the particular genes that make one person different from another, such
as genes for IQ or homosexuality.

In 1997, an especially acrimonious debate over EP broke out when Gould took
on the new school of sociobiologists in a long two-part article in the
NYRB. Describing his foes as "Darwinian fundamentalists," he addressed
himself to what he saw as the essential weakness of the adaptationist
approach: "The human brain must be bursting with spandrels that are
essential to human nature and vital to our self-understanding but that
arose as nonadaptations, and are therefore outside the compass of
evolutionary psychology, or any other ultra-Darwinian theory."

No wallflower when it comes to protecting his turf, Steven Pinker leaped to
defend his science. "The ideas of EP are not as stupid as Gould makes them
out to be," he wrote in a letter to the NYRB published later that year.
"Indeed, they are nothing like what Gould makes them out to be." It doesn't
matter, Pinker argued, whether a complex adaptation originated as an
exaptation or a spandrel; if it later serves a useful function for the
organism, it must have been acted on by natural selection to serve that
function. "That there is a particular school of adaptationism is a
rhetorical device," Pinker told me. "The school is just about everybody,"
he asserted, referring to the legions of scientists who study animal
behavior using the sociobiological paradigm. "Gould and Lewontin have
influence over social scientists and literary types who read The New York
Review of Books and Natural History; they didn't like the direction
sociobiology was going. Marxists don't want there to be an innate human
nature, particularly not one that smacks of selfishness, greed, and
aggression. They always say that a person's science can't be divorced from
his politics, but they never apply this argument to themselves."...

...Gould, who has always been somewhat more interested than Lewontin in
finding common ground with his opponents, has recently shown some openness
to EP ideas about the differences between the sexual attitudes of males and
females. In the EP view, males are likely to be promiscuous because it is
advantageous to spread their sperm far and wide. Females, on the other
hand, are programmed to be more selective: Their eggs are more precious
than male sperm, and they are strapped into months of gestation and
suckling after conception. In his NYRB attack on EP, Gould goes so far as
to call this line of reasoning the "most promising" EP has to offer, and he
admits that it "probably does underlie some different and broadly general
emotional propensities of human males and females." However, he cautions
the EPists against pushing this theory too far and suffering the fate of
Freudians, who "elevated a limited guide into a rigid creed that became
more of an untestable and unchangeable religion than a science."

Lewontin, who married his high school sweetheart and can to this day be
seen walking hand in hand across Harvard Yard with her, takes a much harder
line. "I'm a man, and I don't go around screwing young girls," he says.
"I'm human, and so I have to be explained."

One can almost see Lewontin hiking through the Vermont woods shaking his
head in despair at the loss of Comrade Gould. There had been no more
articulate spokesman in the battle against bourgeois decadence.

Meanwhile, Pinker, busy promoting his latest book, Words and Rules: The
Ingredients of Language (Norton), marches forward. In a recent appearance
in London, Pinker and Dawkins held a public forum titled "Is Science
Killing the Soul?" which was attended by 2300 people and sold out weeks in
advance. Pinker spoke of the fiction of the unified self. "It's only an
illusion that there's a president in the Oval Office of the brain who
oversees the activity of everything," he said, in what undoubtedly struck
many as a particularly apt metaphor.

The notion that there is no unified self is fundamental to EP. If the brain
is a collection of computers, each one of which performs a highly
specialized function, then it makes sense to invoke natural selection
acting over millions of years to account for the existence of those

This view of the mind broken up into an array of independently evolved
modules is disquieting to many. As the Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor, the
author of a forthcoming book titled The Mind Doesn't Work That Way (MIT),
puts it, "If there is a community of computers in my head, there had also
better be somebody who is in charge, and, by God, it had better be me." If
one does not believe that human intelligence is the sum of an array of
computers, then one must postulate the existence of some more general
cognitive ability that gives us the capacity for complex thought. And this
general ability, Fodor believes, may be the result of a small but crucial
evolutionary shift that distinguished our brains from the brains of other

Like Fodor, Lewontin and Gould argue that the EPists have it wrong:
Language, consciousness, and most of our distinctively human mental
capacities are side effects of the fact that our brain grew big for other
reasons. Furthermore, they caution, these reasons cannot be reconstructed.
Our extraordinary human abilities are epiphenomena of "all those loose
connections with nothing to do," explains Lewontin. As an example of a
nonadaptive trait, he offers the uniquely human ability to use recursion in
language, that is, to make sentences of the form: "I say that Noam Chomsky
says, when people say..." Though chimps can be taught to compose simple
sentences of the form "I want" or "I see" on a computer, they cannot be
taught to use recursion.

Does Lewontin have a theory about the origin of this unique linguistic
ability of humans? "You could invent a story," he explains with distaste.
"You could say it was an advantage to early human beings in being able to
say, 'I saw Joe doing that,' but that's just yak!"

Pinker insists that our ability to use language has evolved because
language offered a selective advantage. "Being articulate is highly valued
in all cultures," he says. "Tribal chiefs are high in verbal skills and
have more offspring."...

...The point of Pinker and Hauser's course is to trace the origins of human
thought. There is no doubt that we can learn a lot about human language
from studying apes and birds, Hauser told me after the seminar one
afternoon. The way birds learn their songs is strikingly similar to the way
humans learn language.

In his characteristically acerbic way, Lewontin dismisses this idea. It is
simply impossible to say how novel abilities like human language arose. He
jibes: "One way to get around the problem that language is a novelty is to
define it in such a way that doesn't make it a novelty. You'll say bird
twitter is language." In a 1998 article titled "The Evolution of Cognition:
Questions We Will Never Answer," Lewontin wrote, "It might be interesting
to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but
we cannot know. Tough luck." This spring, Lewontin will publish a
collection of his essays with the appropriately contrarian title It Ain't
Necessarily So.

Even if God were to descend on Cambridge and part the waters of the Charles
River at Lewontin's feet, it would still be unthinkable to imagine the
skeptical biologist embracing religion. Gould, on the other hand, has
recently been evincing a new sympathy for the realm of the unscientific. In
his most recent book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness
of Life (1999), he not only sets out terms for a peaceful coexistence with
the obdurate religious believers among us but seems to offer another
defense against the sociobiological threat. His thesis is that it makes
perfect sense to see science and religion as distinct and complementary
forms of human endeavor: Science addresses the "factual character of the
natural world"; religion is concerned with spiritual meaning and morality.

This dualism stands in stark contrast to the views of Wilson, Dawkins, and
Pinker, who categorically deny the existence of a soul or spirit. Indeed,
from the outset, it was Wilson's goal to deny the existence of an
independent moral realm. In On Human Nature, he says, "Human behavior...is
the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has and will be
kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function."
Consilience (1998), Wilson's latest and most ambitious statement to date,
takes an even more radical position, arguing that "there is intrinsically
only one class of explanation." He goes on to make the bold assertion that
"all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social
institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately
reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of

Gould insists that it is not possible to reduce ethics to sociobiology or
to unify knowledge by subsuming one theory in another. Even if human traits
like xenophobia and aggression, for example, were in the end shown to be
the result of adaptations in the Pleistocene era, Gould contends, science
alone will not suffice as an explanatory system. The man who largely made
his name insisting on the purposelessness of life has found a place in his
heart for religion. But that's not to say Gould has turned into any kind of
crypto-creationist. No matter who turns out to be right in the end, he and
his adaptationist foes can at least agree with Darwin that "whilst this
planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so
simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have
been, and are being, evolved."   *****

In the minds of evolutionary psychologists, adaptation & pervasive utility
work together as a substitute for God.

three cheers for Richard Lewontin,


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